Apple teases with mysterious ‘product transition’

July 22, 2008, 11:44 AM UTC

The biggest mystery to come out of Apple’s Q3 earnings conference call Monday — besides the state of Steve Jobs’ health — was the “future product transition” that CFO Peter Oppenheimer mentioned as one of the three reasons he expects the company’s gross margins to fall from 34.1% to 31.5% over the next three months.

For a company that doesn’t talk about future products, Apple spent a lot of time Monday talking about this one. Oppenheimer mentioned this product transition at least four times during the call, hinting at “state-of-the-art products at pricepoints our competitors can’t match” and adding coyly — and illogically — that he couldn’t talk about it.

So, of course, that set off a round of overnight speculation. See, for example, here.

Could it be a revamped Apple TV? No, that’s a product that sells in numbers too small to account for the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to do that kind of damage to Apple’s gross margins.

Could it be the long-awaited tablet Mac? No, that would be a new product, not a product transition.

Could it be a revamped iPod line, with iPod touch-like controls and solid state drives to replace the old hard drives? That’s more likely. After all, Oppenheimer warned of the same kind of product transition costs at this time last year, and what came out of it was the iPod touch.

Could it have something to do with the MacBook line? That’s what Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster suggested in a note to clients Tuesday morning. Overhauls of the MacBook and MacBook Pro are overdue, he pointed out, and delivering them just before school starts — perhaps at prices starting at $999 — would make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, Apple (AAPL) is a company that thrives on dropping hints and then clamming up, letting fevered speculation do the work of softening up the market.

Maybe that’s what Peter Oppenheimer — taking a lesson from his CEO — was really up to.